Tough bargain at Maxwell Street Market

Vendors at 100-year-old market feel squeezed by requirements

08/22/2012 10:00 PM


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David Petty, who has sold hair clippers, accessories and books at the Maxwell Street Market since 2000, is leading a charge among vendors against city requirements they say are unreasonable.
Photos by BEN MEYERSON/Staff

The Maxwell Street Market is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, marking a century since it was founded on Halsted Street and given a name in 1912.

But walking through the market today, you won’t find too many vendors celebrating the occasion — most of them are too busy trying to sell enough stuff to make ends meet.

Many say it’s become increasingly hard over the years as the city’s fees have increased and the market has changed locations from its namesake home to Canal Street and now to Desplaines Street.

Now, a new requirement from the city is looming, and many in the marketplace fear it’ll push the market further towards extinction.

Starting in 2013, the city will require each vendor at the market to carry a $1 million insurance policy. The city said it protects taxpayers against unnecessary risk. Market advocates say it’s an unreasonable fee that could finally make it unfeasible for vendors to sell at Maxwell.

In response, a group of vendors and advocates has banded together to form the Maxwell Street Market Vendors Association. Together, they’re aiming to work with the city to fight the insurance requirement — or at least make it more practical to put in place.

Among those leading the charge is Peter Pero, head of the Maxwell Street Foundation, a historically focused group that was born out of the fight to preserve the original market. The market has shrunk dramatically from its peak, he said, when it featured more than 1,000 vendors. Today, it features only around 100, he said.

Walking around the market on a Sunday afternoon, he pointed out the number of empty vendor spaces near the intersection of Polk Street and Desplaines.

“Look at these spaces,” Pero gestured. “Spaces that could be rented are empty. You can blame it on the recession, but you can also repair this through policies that are more creative by the city and more enlightened.”

Why the city would add another requirement at a time like this baffles Pero. Food vendors at the market were required to have insurance last year — a good thing, he thinks, with the dangers of food prep — but why force the market’s other small vendors to get insurance?

It’s a policy that could cost already cash-strapped vendors anywhere from $400 to $600 a year, he said.

“We don’t get it. Vendors don’t get it. It’s just one more fee on your shoulders to sort of scare you off,” he said. “We understand food vendors need to have liability; I want to know that [they have insurance]. But a guy who’s selling socks, or toys, a guy who’s selling sunglasses already has a small table. Now how does he cover liability? It’s almost a joke.”

The $1 million requirement isn’t new or necessarily even unique to sellers at Maxwell Street. It’s something the city requires every vendor doing business at a city event to have, said Cindy Gatziolis, spokeswoman for the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, which runs the market. They’re simply beginning to enforce it for Maxwell Street vendors this year.

“We require all special event vendors, food, sponsors, all of them, farmers market vendors, whoever’s having any kind of presence on city property, to have this,” she said. “What it does is it reduces the risk to the city and the taxpayers.”

One main issue vendors have with the requirement, though, is that they’re required to get a full year’s worth of insurance to take part in the market, when they’re only working at the market for 52 days out of the year, at most.

David Petty, who’s been selling hair clippers and cutting equipment alongside rare books at the market since 2000, is leading the charge as president of the new vendors association.

“We’ve had a lot of problems down here. And the main thing now is the insurance,” Petty said as he stood in his booth last Sunday.

“We can’t support that,” he added, stopping to point out the pricing on a set of clippers to a customer. “Because what we do is one day a week here. So they want us to take out a whole year’s insurance. What happened was the vendors, they were going to quit.”

A prorated insurance policy, which would keep the same amount of coverage but for only a few days of the year, could help bring down costs significantly and make it much easier for vendors to stomach, Petty and Pero said.

Petty said some goodwill efforts have been made by Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the city agency that runs the market. The department’s commissioner, Michelle Boone, has met with the vendors several times, he said, and already pushed back the insurance deadline from Labor Day to January 2013.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in an unrelated press conference Tuesday said he had been out to the market this month, heard some of the vendors’ concerns and sent them back to the appropriate department.

“I think it was two weekends ago — it might have been three — I was doing some of my what I call target town hall, walking around to parts of the city, meeting people. And I went around Maxwell Street, meeting with vendors and also talking to the customers,” Emanuel said. “So I passed that information along to the appropriate people in city government. But Maxwell Street is a rich part of our history and will continue to be a rich part of our history.”

As leader of the Maxwell Street Foundation, Pero said he thinks the market’s stature in the city’s lore is one of the main reasons vendors keep coming, for now.

“I think it’s the history that keeps these guys coming back. It’s not the streamlined regulation,” he said. “It’s like, well, I want to be on the first street; I want to be on the first marketplace.”

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By Moe from South Loop
Posted: 08/27/2012 11:33 PM

Maybe it\'s time to move into another neighborhood closer to where more people are looking for a deal. Afterall, Maxwell St. was a different place 100 years ago and it served a purpose for the people in that area back then. Maybe a more appropriate neighborhood would be Pilsen, Garfield Park on the West side, North Lawndale Logan Square or Humboldt Park? I know the first thing that comes to mind is crime, but I\'m tired of our city not being able to grow or thrive because violent crimes.

By Darlene Bobiek from Logansquare
Posted: 08/27/2012 6:30 PM

I have been a vendor on max well street for 20 years. My husband and I started vending in 1991. Those were the good old days! I enjoyed it and still do very much. Its very hard to make a dollar now a days, especially when the max well street market wants us to have insurance on our cars and tents that is costing an arm and a leg! We all need to stick together in order for this new max well street market to stay alive and keep on living for another 100 years! happy birthday max well street!!!

By Jesse Mulert from West Town
Posted: 08/24/2012 4:50 PM

If the market is good for our community, then it is up to the community to protect it. The easiest way to support the market is by voting with your dollars. Change your buying habits, and support your local economy. Another way to help is by visiting or following the Maxwell Street Market Vendors Association. ( OR Last but not least, write Comissioner Boone: [email protected]

By mari from Bronzeville
Posted: 08/24/2012 8:54 AM

I\\\'ve been going to the market for years. The last several have been disappointing, but I go to meet and greet new and old friends. Find those special buys that I wouldn\\\'t ordianarly find in a store or have to go to many to find an item. But the last several years the vendors have found new places to sell their wares. Rosemont is a very good example. It\\\'s just such a drive where as I ride my bike to Maxwell all the time. Parking is free at Rosemont, cover is a donation, but the deals are on

By Susan S. Stevens from Near West Side
Posted: 08/24/2012 8:19 AM

City officials should realize the appeal open-air markets have for tourists in other cities. Then, in addition to the Maxwell Market, open a Sunday market downtown on perhaps Wacker Drive.

By Mike from Near Loop
Posted: 08/23/2012 1:10 PM

Perhaps this paper should look into who sells this form of insurance. In the past, such requirements by various government agencies have been a simple method of stealing for well connected insurance brokers.

By George from West Side
Posted: 08/23/2012 10:28 AM

The city knows if they shut the Maxwell Street Market, they will be sue. That is why the city is charging these vendors a lot of money for permits, issurance, and other fees. The city hopes this will slowly end the Maxwell Street Market for good.